Are you building bridges or moats?

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/BridgesAndMoats.mp3]
Leeds Castle
Creative Commons License photo credit: raindog

Look closely at your business and think of each thing you do that interacts with other vendors, competitors, customers, prospects and your community.

For each interaction, consider whether it builds a bridge or a moat:

  • A bridge allows someone on one side of a chasm or river to get to the other side. Bridges are welcoming (toll gates notwithstanding) and encourage interaction and cooperation.
  • A moat keeps others out.

A moat says “I’m scared of what’s out there, it might get me.”  Moats are often built by companies that fear the future, if not the present.

Moat builders often think in terms that are the antidote to improvement – and that “C word”, change. Their moat makes it appear that they fear change and the future because the future often brings changes to “the rules” (you know – “the rules that got us here”).

Working together

Many companies design interoperability features into their product.

In other words, they make their product easy to integrate with other products or standard services. In the software world, interaction with systems like Growl (a universal notification system) or SOAP (a web-based way to send data in the context of a description of that data) are a good example.

They make their product “talk to” and/or “listen” to other products.

Interoperability (making stuff work together – even with *competitor’s stuff*) is a bridge.

Others are in their own little world and refuse to interoperate, or do so far less than most. They sometimes ignore standards or recreate their own because they think they know better (and sometimes, just sometimes, they *do* know better – but do they share that knowledge?).

In most cases, refusing to make your product interoperable is a moat.

Communities have bridges and moats too

When the investment in participating in user communities becomes so frustrating that it isn’t worth it anymore, who suffers?

The company. Long time community members. New members of the community. Everyone, really.

Without a community tie-in, there’s less inertia to keep you from trying other products, much less switching to them. Kennedy talks about “putting an iron fence around your herd” – meaning keep your customers close by doing things that prevent them from even *considering* using another vendor.

Community is a big part of that.

Different companies handle this in different ways.

These days there are web forums, community-building environments like Ning.com, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, old-school newsgroups, Google groups and many other options that allow you to build a place for your customers to meet and talk shop.

Once you get them there, then the challenge really begins. Do you encourage it to take on a life of its own, or do you spin it, control it and stunt its growth? Are the members of the community like a herd of cows, moving where you drive them, or are they gazelles?

Enable and Empower

Back in my software biz days, there was no social media other than BBS systems or email lists. Most customers were non-technical and spending more time on the computer didn’t interest them (there were exceptions, of course).

We saw a substantial uptick in sales, referrals and hard-to-measure/value “customer goodwill” when we started having day-long training sessions at trade shows. We’d just stick everyone in a room and go over what was new, what the group wanted training on and more often than not, the day also turning into a rich interactive resource for everyone in attendance.

There were benefits for us as well, but that’s not our topic for today.

How you manage – no, no – how you *enable and empower* your user community to become an asset to themselves, your services, your products and your business is critical. How you view that asset (the group/community) and how you nurture it says a lot about your company.

It’s not just a community for now, it’s a sales tool, a testimonial and many other positive things…if you allow it and encourage it to be.

What’s yours?

In your world, is that asset being used as a bridge or a moat?

The mindset of digging a moat around your business infects your staff, your services and your products with thoughts like “We know better”, “We don’t need you (or them)” and “We can do it all ourselves.”

Even if true, the deeper and wider the moat between you and your customers become, the easier it’ll be for someone else to convince those customers to head for a bridge.

The problem with moats is not just that they keep others out, but that they keep you trapped inside.

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